The “Divine Coin Flip”: A Perfect God Using Less-Than-Perfect Means

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The Creation of Adam

It is entirely uncontroversial in Christian circles to suggest that God communicates through culture; we believe that God speaks through written books and human mouths. Suggest for a moment that these tools of communication aren’t perfect or perfected by God, on the other hand, and you might find yourself tied to a stake (or in jeapordy of losing your job).

What if the perfect God used imperfect tools? What if God’s communications were entirely “true,” but still retained some of humanity’s limitations?

That just might change the way we read the Bible and possibly the way we look at language and truth themselves. But I won’t spend time delineating epistemological arguments, I’d like to point out something more accessible. I’d like to talk about flipping coins.

Ancient believers practiced the Divine Coin Flip; they would leave a decision up to chance and believed that the Sovereign God would determine the results. They would say things like “the dice are cast into the lap; all decisions are from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33) and cast lots to discern God’s opinion on all sorts of matters – even the apostolic replacement for Judas (Acts 1:24-26).

In a rather exotic example, the Divine Coin Flip is used by the (in)famous Sotah Passage of Numbers 5 to force an allegedly adulterous wife to play an ancient form of Russian Roulette in an attempt to prove her purity

“A man may suspect that his wife has had an affair… even though there are no witnesses. If jealousy overcomes him… the man may bring his wife to the priest. The priest will take holy water in a clay jar, and taking dust from the floor of the dwelling, the priest will place it in the water. The priest will make the woman stand before the LORD, let the hair of the woman hang down… the water of bitterness that brings the curse will be in the hands of the priest. Then the priest will make her swear a solemn pledge… the priest will write these curses in the scroll and wipe them off in to the water of bitterness. Then he will make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse… When he has made her drink the water, if she has defiled herself… her womb will dishcarge and she will miscarry. The woman will be a curse among her people. But if the woman hasn’t defiled herself and she is pure, then she will be immune and able to conceive.”

If this bothers you, don’t worry; it probably should. Our cultural sensibilities have changed.

It might be unfair to castigate this practice as ancient when the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, for one, selects its patriarch by collecting the names of three nominees on slips of paper, putting them in a box, and directing a blindfolded five-year-old boy to draw one out. Beside this, I’m sure there are elements of the coin flip in all manners of private Christian practice. I am not aware, however, of any officially sanctioned coin-flipping by your usual cast of “orthodox” denominations.

Judicatory dice tossing and wife-poisoning have fallen out of Christian vogue, because culture changes – even betters itself. What seems normal one day seems ridiculous the next. Human society is ever changing and messy, but God uses it.

The kicker here is twofold- (1) the fact that God uses human culture doesn’t necessarily baptize every incidental aspect of that culture and (2) just because something isn’t “perfect” by our current societal standards doesn’t mean God couldn’t (or didn’t) use it.

It is just as ridiculous to suggest that God didn’t speak through ancient culture, because it was so far from perfect, as it is to think that God speaks through our culture because it is perfect.

This has implications for the way we construct Christian culture and the ways we understand Scripture- including what we do with patriarchy, evolution, and the harmonization of the gospels (for starters). Admitting this might seem like it makes hearing God’s voice more difficult, but I don’t think so. Until we’re ready to accept that God (in some way) is using culture on its own terms, then we aren’t yet truly listening.

Or maybe I’m wrong? Maybe Christians should still be casting lots and bringing fresh nuances to the term “Holy Rollers.”

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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  • Thomas O’Brien

    Your blogs are always very interesting to read. This one in particular has got me thinking. Because now that i think back to this Holy Rollin’, it was used even with Joshua splitting up the promised land (i am pretty sure at least). Almost a more physical manifestation of leaving up to God a decision.

    And you also hit the nail on the head. We do look at the bible (and pretty much everything else) in comparison to todays times. We really should look at it compared to what was happening when it was written. Interesting